Insomnia Post 4: Reading “The Bookseller of Kabul”

4:55 AM, haven’t slept a wink, largely due to hubby’s three-hour chat with his family back home. He logged on at 9, then proceeded to chat with sister, mom, and nephew for over three hours. Self found the whole proceeding slightly amusing, but hubby’s booming voice (mother-in-law is deaf and can only understand if you shout) was extremely penetrating, even though self had closed the door to the bedroom.

Self wonders why she has so little inclination to chat this way, with a webcam. Also, when she has something to say to her mother or brothers, the conversation never lasts more than an hour. Self wonders at hubby’s tenacity. For it is no mean feat to keep talking to one’s mother — or, for that matter, to anyone for that long a time.

Mercifully, however, the mother of all skype calls does eventually end. Self then lies down to try and get some sleep — but, try as she might, she keeps getting up. First it’s 1:47, then becomes 2:14, then 2:47, then 4:47.

At 4:47 self gives up and makes herself some coffee. Since hubby also cannot sleep when he has been too long in the internet, self finds him in the living room, with the TV blaring. Self inquires why hubby can’t call at a different time of day — say, Saturday afternoon. But hubby replies that it will make no difference, with self’s’ “type of personality” she will always find reason to complain. Self wonders what type of personality she has. But, now that sleep is not forthcoming, this day, Saturday, will be a wash. And self dearly wanted to get a lot of things done, as this is the last weekend before she goes to Tel Aviv. Should self now recite Murphy’s Law? Or, even better, that hoary old chestnut that begins: “The best laid plans of mice and men . . . ?” Whatever. Now self will be forced to spend the day walking around with head in a fog, unable to make any decisions.

Which brings self to the book she began reading at 4:44: Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul. Self has heard things about this story: such as how the bookseller permitted the reporter to live in his home, granting her unprecedented access to his family for the book she was writing. Then, when the book came out, the bookseller was outraged by Ms. Seierstad’s depiction of him as authoritarian and mysoginistic, and accused her of abusing his hospitality. There are many facets to this story that self does not understand, but when she sees the inner flap of the book jacket, she has a little better idea about what was going on.

The reporter is a young Norwegian woman (and here self thought all along that she was a man), and she is very pretty. Perhaps the Kabul bookseller was flattered to have the reporter taking down notes on almost his every utterance. (That’ll teach you, bookseller from Kabul! Never, ever judge a book by its cover!) Perhaps he was as intrigued by this young, independent woman as she was with his family. The reporter, too, must have been aware of her charms. Did she in fact flirt with this man in order to win “favor,” to gain the unusual level of access that she did? Was this in fact the reason behind the man’s acute sense of outrage and betrayal?

Self is only on p. 36, but already she finds this book enormously enthralling. Here is what the Ms. Seierstad has to say on the subject of “the veil”:

I was spared to having to adhere to the Afghan women’s strict dress code, and I could go wherever I wanted. Nevertheless, I often dressed in the burka, simply to be left alone. A Western woman in the streets ok Kabul attracts a lot of unwanted attention. Beneath the burka I could gaze around to my heart’s content without being stared at in return. I could observe other family members when we were out, without everyone’s attention being diverted to me. Anonymity became a release, the only place to which I could return; in Kabul quiet places were in short supply.

I also wore the burka to discover for myself what it is like to be an Afghan woman; what it feels like to squash into the chockablock back rows reserved for women when the rest of the bus is half empty, what it feels like to squeeze into the trunk of a taxi because a man is occupying the back seat, what it feels like to be stared at as a tall and attractive burka, and receive my first burka-compliment from a man in the street.

A little later, Ms. Seiserstad recounts the sad tale of Jamila, a young, beautiful woman “from a superior family” who was married off to a distant relative. After spending two weeks with his bride, Jamila’s husband goes abroad to try and obtain a visa for her, and there the trouble begins.

They got her after three months. The police had ratted on her. They had spied a man crawling in through her window.

They never got the man, but the husband’s brother found some of his belongings in Jamila’s room, proof of the relationship. The groom’s family immediately dissolved the marriage and sent her packing. She was locked up for two days while a family council was held.

Three days later Jamila’s brother told their neighbors that his sister had died as the result of an accident with a fan that shortcircuited.

What Ms. Seierstad finds most chilling is this: “It was she, the mother, who in the end dispatched her three sons to kill her daughter.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers, stay tuned.

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